The Problem of Evil

4. Character Building

  1. Theodicy 2: The existence of pain and suffering is necessary for the development of good moral characters and for the committing of virtuous acts. There would be no bravery without war, no self-sacrifice without disease, no compassion without cruelty, and so on.[7]

An advantage enjoyed with this theodicy is that it attempts to explain both 'moral evils' and 'natural evils'. The pain and suffering caused by both these kinds of evil help to build moral character in individuals and enables them to act righteously.

Book cover: Evil and the God of Love by John Hick
  1. Response 1: The challenge for the advocates of this theodicy is explaining satisfactorily the geographical and societal distribution of pain and suffering in the world. Citizens living a relatively comfortable life in industrially developed nations experience fewer and less demanding moral challenges than, say, inhabitants of war zones and doctors working in refugee camps. At the personal level, most parents caring for a child with incurable brain cancer are faced with many more opportunities for character building compared with parents rearing healthy children.

  2. Response 2: This theodicy also leaves unexplained the temporal disparity in the distribution of pain and suffering. Nature has been 'red in tooth and claw' for millions of years prior to the onset of Homo sapiens. What was the purpose of pain and suffering in the animal kingdom prior to the evolution of human moral agents?

    In addition, pain and suffering has diminished dramatically following the discovery and widespread use of antibiotics, vaccines and anaesthetics. These medical advances appear to have reduced the world's capacity for soul-making over time. Consider also that many infants and children do not get the opportunity for soul-making. Globally, millions die from disease and malnutrition before reaching their fifth birthday.

  3. Response 3: The experience of trials and tribulations does not always result in the building of resilience, charity and other morally praiseworthy traits. For some, witnessing the murder of their child leads to alcoholism and despair. Other consequences of experiencing tragedy include apathy, mental breakdown and suicide. These are second-order evils that weigh against the goodness of virtuous characters.

  4. Response 4: Where characters are developed and improved through trial and tribulation, we must ask whether the good of the characters developed outweighs the pain and suffering experienced. Does the caring shown by family members and diligence displayed by doctors outweigh the painful deaths experienced by the over 50 million people who fell victim to the bubonic plague in the 14th Century? Are the sufferings of the five million Jews who perished in the gas ovens and concentration camps of the Nazi war machine worth the bravery shown by Allied soldiers? I think not.

  5. Response 5: The soul-making theodicy reverses the reasons why virtuous acts are considered good. On this account, suffering is worthwhile because it leads to acts of charity. However, this is putting the cart before the horse. Our commonplace moral judgement is that acts of charity are good because they reduce suffering. To put it more technically, the soul-making theodicist regards the primary evil of suffering as instrumentally good because it leads to the primary good of charity. This contradicts our commonly held moral intuition that charity is an instrumental good because it reduces the primary evil of suffering.

  6. Response 6: For a moral agent to consciously and deliberately use the pains and sufferings of one person for the benefit of another is to treat the pained person as a means and not as an end in themselves. It may be the case that to cause or allow pain or suffering in one person as means to another good is justified in rare and isolated cases. However, to elevate this principle on a global scale is morally questionable. To treat people as means contravenes Kant's time-honoured principle that we find integral to many ethical systems.

  7. Response 7: One consequence of treating people as means is that many acts and omissions that we regard as heinous become, on this account, morally permissible, or even morally obligatory. Consider this scenario. I am about to reach a medical breakthrough with the development of a cure for a type of cancer that kills millions of sufferers annually. Announcing my breakthrough will lead to a lot of potential patients no longer developing the virtues of courage and humility. It will stop hundreds of researchers continuing their selfless search for a cure and prevent millions of future caregivers nurturing the sick and dying. For the sake of not reducing the incidence of character development and of virtuous acts, I am morally obliged to withhold my cure.

    As a corollary, think about this moral situation. Previous bushfires in my state have led to enormous acts of courage by local emergency workers and great acts of charity toward fire victims. For the soul-making theodicist, these virtues and virtuous acts outweigh the pain and suffering endured by victims. Hence, the principles underpinning this theodicy seem to morally oblige me to light a bushfire near a densely populated town.

Reviewing the character building theodicy, it appears to fall short in accounting for the uneven distribution of opportunities for soul-making in the world and ignores the disvalue of secondary evils. It also assumes that the resulting good always outweighs the victims' pains and sufferings and relies on an untenable moral principle that treats people as means instead of ends. The upshot is that the theodicy leads to morally repugnant implications.[8]


  1. [7] For an extensive development of the character building theodicy, see Hick [1968: ch. XIII, §3].
  2. [8] I deal with the character building theodicy in more detail in my Allan [2015].

Copyright © 2015

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